Dizzy Gillespie – Jazz Pioneer & Bebop Symbol

October 21, 1917 – January 6, 1993 

Dizzy Gillespie was one of the principal developers of bop in the early 1940s, and his styles of improvising and trumpet playing were imitated widely in the 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, he is one of the most influential players in the history of jazz.

Gillespie was the youngest of nine children. His father, a bricklayer and weekend bandleader, died when he was ten. Two years later, he began to teach himself to play trombone and trumpet and later took up cornet.

His musical ability enabled him to attend Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina in 1932 because the school needed a trumpet player for its band. During his years there, he practiced the trumpet and piano intensively, still largely without formal guidance.

In 1935, he left school to join his family, who had moved to Philadelphia. Soon he joined a band led by Frankie Fairfax, which also included Charlie Shavers. Shavers knew many of the trumpet solos of Roy Eldridge, and Gillespie learned them by copying Shavers (he had previously known only a handful of phrases by Eldridge, the man who became his early role model).

Dizzy Gillespie Playing

While he was in Fairfax’s band, Gillespie’s clownish behavior earned him the nickname he has carried ever since. Gillespie left Philadelphia in 1937 and moved to New York to try and become better known as a jazz player. After sitting in with many different bands and at many jam sessions, he earned a job with Teddy Hill’s big band, largely because he sounded much like Eldridge, who had been Hill’s trumpet soloist.

The band toured France and Great Britain for two months shortly after Gillespie joined. On returning to New York, he again worked in several groups, including Al Cooper’s Savoy Sultans and the Afro-Cuban band of Alberto Socarras, before returning to Hill’s band.

In 1939, he joined Cab Calloway’s big band, one of the highest-paid black bands in New York at the time. While in this group, he began to develop an interest in the fusion of jazz and Afro-Cuban music, largely because of his friendship with Mario Bauzi, who was also in Calloway’s band.

During the same period, he was beginning to diverge from Eldridge’s playing style both formally, in his solos with the band such as Pickin’ the Cabbage (1940), and in an informal context with the group’s double bass player Milt Hinton. While on tour in 1940, Gillespie met Charlie Parker in Kansa City. Soon he began participating in after-hours jam session in New York with Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, and others.

This group of young, experimenting players gradual developed the new, more complex style of jazz that was to be called bop. Recordings, such as Kerouac (1941), made at Minton’s Playhouse, exemplify this emergent style.

A dispute with Calloway led to Gillespie’s dismissal in 1941. He then worked briefly with many leaders, including Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Charlie Barnet, Le Hite, Lucky Millinder, Earl Hines (whose band also included Parker), and Duke Ellington.

With Millinder, he recorded a full, formed bop solo within a swing band context on Little John Special (1942). After his solo, the band plays a riff which he developed into the composition Salt Peanuts. During the winter of 1943-4, Gillespie led a small group with Oscar Pettiford. In 1944, Billy Eckstine, the singer with the Hines band, formed a big band of his own and engaged Gillespie to play and to be the music director.

At about the same time, Gillespie made some of the first small-group bop recordings, some with Hawkins’s band and others, including Salt Peanuts and Hot House, under his own name with Parker.

Early in 1945, Gillespie organized his own short-lived big band. Failing to achieve financial success with this group, he then formed a bop quintet with Parker in November. He later expanded the group to a sextet, but his desire to lead a big band inspired him to try once more, and this time he was able to keep its members together for four years.

During this period, the band made some early attempts to fuse Afro-Cuban rhythms with Afro-American jazz. Gillespie added Chano Pozo to the rhythm section, and the two men recorded Cubana Bel/Cubana Bop (written by George Russell) and Manteca (by Gillespie and Pozo). By 1947, the band’s rhythm section consisted of John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke, and Ray Brown, who went on to form the Modern Jazz Quartet. At various times such prominent bop players as J. J. Johnson, Sonny Stitt, James Moody, Jimmy Heath, Paul Gonsalves, and John Coltrane were also members of Gillespie’s band.

Financial pressures forced Gillespie to give up the big band in 1950. A short engagement as featured soloist with Stan Kenton’s big band followed, and then he organized a sextet. In 1951, he formed his own record company, Dee Gee; it, too, was financially unrewarding and short-lived.

Early in 1953, someone accidentally fell on Gillespie’s trumpet, which was sitting upright on a trumpet stand, and bent the bell back. Gillespie played it, discovered that he liked the sound, and from that point on had trumpets built for him with the bell pointing upwards at a 45 degree angle. The design is his visual trademark — for more than three decades he was virtually the only major trumpeter in jazz playing such an instrument. In 1956, after several years leading small groups, Gillespie formed another big band specifically to tour Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece, and Yugoslavia on a cultural mission for the US State Department, and a few months later another sponsored tour to South America took place.

Dizzy Gillespie and bent trumpet

He kept the band together for two years, but without government funding he was unable to keep such a large ensemble operational, and he returned to leading small groups. Gillespie continued to perform and record extensively with his various small groups into the late 1980s. In addition, he appeared occasionally in all-star groups such as the Giants of Jazz (1971-2), a sextet with Kai Winding, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, Al McKibbon, and Art Blakey. Also, he was a regular performer on Caribbean cruise ships that featured jazz artists.

Although he was once viewed as a musical iconoclast, his music is no longer considered radical. He is viewed rather as an elder statesman of jazz, and his outgoing personality and impish sense of humor endeared him to the general public through appearances on television.


  • 1937-49 The Complete RCA Victor Recordings
  • 1941: The Immortal Charlie Christian (with Christian, Thelonious Monk, Delta Music re-released on Laserlight cassette)
  • 1950: Bird & Diz
  • 1952: Dee Gee Days – The Savoy Sessions
  • 1953: Jazz at Massey Hall
  • 1953: Diz & Getz (with Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Max Roach, Herb Ellis)
  • 1954: Afro
  • 1956: Modern Jazz Sextet
  • 1957: Sittin’ In (with Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins)
  • 1957: Dizzy Gillespie at Newport
  • 1957: Sonny Side Up (with Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt)
  • 1957: Dizzy in Greece
  • 1958: Birks’ Works (Dizzy Gillespie Big Band)
  • 1959: Have Trumpet, Will Excite!
  • 1959: The Ebullient Mr. Gillespie
  • 1960: A Portrait of Duke Ellington
  • 1961: An Electrifying Evening with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet
  • 1962: Dizzy on the French Riviera (Philips Records)
  • 1963: New Wave (Philips Records) (with Lalo Schifrin, Bola Sete)
  • 1963: Something Old, Something New
  • 1963: Dizzy Gillespie and the Double Six of Paris
  • 1964: Jambo Caribe (with James Moody, Kenny Barron)
  • 1967: Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac (Impulse!)
  • 1968: Live at the Village Vanguard (produced by Sonny Lester
  • 1968: Reunion Big Band In Berlin (MPS Records)
  • 1969: Strictly Bebop (with Babs GonzalezTad Dameron, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, John Coltrane), rec. 1949 EMI Capitol
  • 1969: Real Thing (Perception Records)
  • 1970: Portrait of Jenny (Perception)
  • 1971: Giants (Perception, with Bobby Hackett)
  • 1971: Dizzy Gillespie and the Mitchell Ruff Duo In Concert (Mainstream Records)
  • 1974: Oscar Peterson and Dizzy Gillespie
  • 1975: Afro-Cuban Jazz Moods (with Machito, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauza)
  • 1975: Jazz Maturity…Where It’s Coming From
  • 1975: Oscar Peterson and The Trumpet Kings – Jousts
  • 1975: The Trumpet Kings at Montreux ’75
  • 1976: Dizzy’s Party
  • 1977: The Gifted Ones (with Count Basie)
  • 1981: Digital at Montreux, 1980 (Toots Thielemans, Bernard Purdie)
  • 1985: New Faces (with Robert Ameen, Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Lonnie Plaxico, Charlie Christian)
  • 1988: Oop Pop a Da (with Moe Koffman)
  • 1989: Live at the Royal Festival Hall London July 10, 1989
  • 1989: The Symphony Sessions (with Ron Holloway, Ed Cherry, John Lee, Ignacio Berroa) rec. August 25, 1989 ProJazz
  • 1990: The Winter in Lisbon
  • 1990: Rhythmstick (CTI Records)
  • 1990: Live! at Blues Alley (with Ron Holloway, Ed Cherry, John Lee, Ignacio Berroa) rec. October 30, 1991 Blues Alley Music Society
  • 1992: Groovin’ High
  • 1992: To Bird With Love
  • 1995: In Paris v.2 Vogue RCA 1995